Exploiting COVID-19 to Attack Migrant & Asylum-Seeking Children

In the U.S., and around the world, schools are closed and children are home with their families and caregivers for a simple reason: to keep them safe from COVID-19.

Protecting the health and safety of a child is fundamental. In fact, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child—a global treaty on the rights of children signed 30 years ago—has been ratified by every UN nation, except the United States. 

The disturbing truth is that for too many children, the fundamental rights to health, safety and well-being often go unprotected or are actively threatened. The unprecedented threat of COVID-19 has left one particular group of children uniquely vulnerable: migrant and asylum-seeking children, especially those at the U.S. border with Mexico. 

Instead of stepping up to protect migrant children during COVID-19, the Trump administration is using the pandemic to continue its attack on children seeking safety at the U.S. border.

Their weapon of choice is a pandemic-related Centers for Disease Control (CDC) order limiting entry at the U.S. border. Make no mistake, this order is an attack on children. The CDC has refused to publicly justify this order and its focus on asylum seekers. 

U.S. border officials are turning families away, in many cases forcing them back in the early morning into Mexico, where there is no one—no Mexican government representatives, no family, no friends—to receive them. 

In other cases, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is deliberately targeting children who entered the U.S. to seek protection prior to the CDC order. ICE takes these children from government shelters in the middle of the night, shuffles them between motel rooms under armed guard and puts them on deportation flights—often without notifying the children’s parents and family.

Exploiting COVID-19 to Attack Migrant & Asylum-Seeking Children
A ‘Refugees Welcome’ rally at the Capitol in October 2019. (Victoria Pickering / Flickr)

We know that children typically migrate to escape harm or ameliorate threats to their well-being. We also know that many displaced children suffer additional harm and trauma in the course of migrating, as they are often forced to use irregular routes where they are preyed upon by traffickers, criminal actors and rogue government officials.

As a result, many migrant children, with histories of sub-standard medical care and significant trauma, are at an increased risk of health complications from COVID-19 infection. 

Sadly, the U.S. is not alone in its betrayal of migrant and asylum-seeking children. Women and their children face obstacles to safety at borders around the world.

In Greece, despite years-long calls for evacuation of children in light of unsafe conditions, members of the European Union have failed to take action. While individual EU countries have recently started to take in small numbers of children, many point to COVID as an excuse to delay processes, including family reunification. 

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Government policies and actions that undermine or threaten migrant children’s safety do not make anyone safer. Rather, they increase the risk of serious injury, mental trauma and death to children and their caregivers, as well as the risk of COVID-19 infection in vulnerable communities. Adolescent girls are at particular risks of trafficking and gender-based violence.

Moreover, these policies represent attempts by governments to normalize human rights violations, which in turn dehumanize children for being “other”—whether a migrant, poor, a person of color or all three.

Children’s potential for safe, healthy and unencumbered development depends in part on society’s recognition of their unique needs and vulnerabilities as children. The developmental potential for every child is diminished when certain categories of children are treated as different and less deserving of protection. 

Here in the U.S., it is incumbent upon all of us to reject the inhumane attacks on vulnerable children by the Trump administration.

How to Protect Migrant Children

The U.S. government must ensure that treatment of migrant children protects their rights, not least their basic health and safety.

To protect—rather than persecute—migrant children, the Trump administration must:

  1. Guarantee their right to seek asylum and international protection by immediately rescinding the CDC order authorizing the expulsion of children and families without the chance to apply for asylum or other protection.
  2. Respect and protect the right to family unity and avoid any action that results in family separation. Where children have been separated or arrive unaccompanied, reunification or release to family should be prioritized, not deportation. 
  3. Refrain from measures addressing the COVID-19 pandemic that directly or indirectly discriminate against migrant women and girls.
  4. Ensure that the best interest of the child principle is followed in all decisions and actions relating to children and youth, not least by ceasing any deportations of unaccompanied children that arenot found to be in their best interest.   

History will judge both those who betrayed children during this pandemic and those who failed to stand up to rampant human rights abuses.

Whose side will you be on?


Diane Eikenberry is the policy advisor at Women's Refugee Commission.